My songs of 2019 are in no particular order except that I’d probably place God Control at number one. I think it’s one of the best things Madonna has ever done and find it remarkable she’s releasing music like this almost 40 years into her career. It’s a towering testament to what pop music is capable of and a necessary reminder of what Madonna brings to the game. If one of the current pop divas had released it I think it would be topping end of year lists everywhere, because it’s exactly what we need more of in these dark times: soaring, ambitious, political pop.
A playlist of my favourite albums of 2018:
And a playlist of my favourite songs:
Lorde wants you to know that she’s different. Much has been made of the fact that “Royals,” her platinum-selling breakout hit, was inspired by a cool disdain for the bling rhetoric of “jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash” which Lorde felt dominated the pop landscape as she grew up in New Zealand. Certainly its opening claim, “I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh,” can’t help but seem like an arch rejoinder to chart queen Rihanna. There’s nothing new, of course, about youthful rebellion against an ostensibly monolithic culture, but “Royals” almost feels like a watershed moment: the very deliberate cross-pollination that has characterized chart pop since rap and (more recently) electronic dance music encroached upon its sales is ingrained in the 16-year-old Lorde. It feels entirely organic that she expresses her anti-materialist sentiment over a sparse backing owing much to hip-hop and also drawing on the lo-fi aesthetic typical of British post-dubstep artists like Burial, The xx and James Blake.
Lorde’s story so far has more than the whiff of a more iconic British artist around it. Like Kate Bush, she was discovered as a teenager and has been mentored until her emergence on the scene, seeming fully formed and sounding quite unlike anything else around. The confident introspection of “Royals” is typical of Lorde’s debut, Pure Heroine, an album which is striking in its precocious self-awareness. It shouldn’t seem so unusual that a teenager can be so articulate, of course – perhaps expectations have been corrupted by the asinine gloss of contemporary teenage artists such as Justin Bieber and One Direction. Whatever the reason, it’s disarming to hear Lorde’s smouldering voice singing lyrics that convey an authentic and engaging honesty. Her difference is no teenage pose, then, and being as savvy as she is talented Lorde draws attention to this contrast at several points throughout the album – most notably in “Team” where she drily notes “I’m kinda over getting told to throw my hands up in the air…so there.”
Aside from distinguishing herself from mainstream pop Lorde also draws on more traditional ideas of the outsider, with the album from its title onwards portraying an eagerness for a life lived beyond traditional mores. By the time we get to the big reveal of penultimate track “White Teeth Teens” we know what’s coming: “I’ll let you in on something big – I’m not a white teeth teen.” This ‘I’m not like other girls’ shtick rarely falls into cliché, however, with Lorde’s words frequently seeming more literary than lyrical (her mother is a poet and she has spoken of being influenced by Kurt Vonnegut and Raymond Carver). The wry “Buzzcut Season”, for example, would make Dorothy Parker proud while the opaque love story of “400 Lux” hinges on delightful lines like “I love these roads where the houses don’t change (and I like you)”. For all the tales of messy romance and allusions to dysfunction, however, the conquering fantasies of “Still Sane” (“I’m little but I’m coming for the crown”) suggest a steely ambition and assurance which fundamentally separate her from the simpering subordination of the oft-cited in comparison Lana Del Rey.
The music quite rightly gives these dazzling lyrics ample space to be noticed. Sparse electronic backing couches Lorde’s vocals on most of these songs and “Royals’” trick of multi-tracking the chorus is repeated to the point of overuse. Nonetheless there is novelty here: the club-friendly “Ribs” repeats its mid-tempo verses as more frenetic choruses riding on a 4/4 beat, an unusual but inspired touch, while an observation that “the sun’s starting to light up when we’re walking home’ is met in the final syllable by a gloriously evocative harmony line in “Glory and Gore”. “Team”, with its Robyn-esque radio-friendly melancholia, is perhaps the most conventional pop song here yet it begins with a processed acapella vocal which becomes more distorted until it loops and falls beneath crunchy drums. The songs unravel like tightly wound coils, bursting with energy and never outstaying their welcome. On paper the starkness should be repetitive but Pure Heroine riffs on a very deliberate, expansive severity. When the closing “A World Alone” adds guitar and sound effects to its dynamic drum patterns and looped vocals, it doesn’t feel like a revelation.
This final song includes a lyric which is destined to be much quoted: “maybe the internet raised us or maybe people are jerks.” That sharp and witty response to the ‘Generation Me Me Me’ handwringing perfectly captures Lorde’s appeal for a generation undoubtedly tired of being spoken for. In Lorde they, and indeed we, have a compelling, articulate and contemporary voice. Pure Heroine is most certainly only the beginning.
Click the link for Spotify playlist. Along with many others, my single of the year is undoubtedly Call Me Maybe – a track I initially dismissed as asinine and bland. I was a fool! My song of the year has not, however, been released as a single – Taylor Swift’s astonishing All Too Well floored me when I first heard it and still does so, its dissection of a break-up displaying an understanding of the power dynamics in relationships which belies Swift’s age. Various pitch-shifted versions can be found on Youtube but you’d be best just buying it on iTunes.
Happily, quite a few songs floored me this year: Solange’s Losing You is appealing and accomplished in an almost cursive way while iLL Manors remains powerful despite its adoption by hand-wringing liberals as ‘the voice of the London riots’. The most recent addition to the list is Don’t Rush by Kelly Clarkson – I first heard it only about a fortnight ago and its gloriously relaxed bliss quickly burrowed its way into my affections. Meanwhile, acts I have previously loved but whom I’ve drifted away from in recent years recaptured me with brilliant tracks like Let’s Have a Kiki and Cut the World. The Misha B and Azealia Banks songs already point to an exciting 2013.
Call Me Maybe – Carly Rae Jepsen
Losing You – Solange
iLL Manors – Plan B
We Take Care Of Our Own – Bruce Springsteen
We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together – Taylor Swift
Born to Die – Lana del Rey
Turn Up The Radio – Madonna
Your Body – Christina Aguilera
Wide Awake – Katy Perry
Let’s Have A Kiki – Scissor Sisters
Every Single Night – Fiona Apple
Try – P!nk
Melancholy Sky – Goldfrapp
Don’t Rush – Kelly Clarkson
Cut the World – Antony & the Johnsons
Magic Chords – Sharon van Etten
1991 – Azealia Banks
Leaving – Pet Shop Boys
Do You Think Of Me – Misha B
Die Young – Ke$ha
I have no particularly strong feelings about Lana Del Rey. I’ve heard a couple of songs and like them well enough. I couldn’t care less about what her ‘real’ story is in terms of whether or not I enjoy her music. However, this piece, and particularly its adoption today as some kind of rallying cry for pop, infuriates me.
I’ve written a few times about inverted pop snobbery and well, here it is. The worst kind of petty sneering at some imaginary oppressive enemy. It is, to borrow a currently in vogue phrase, reductive. This piece skates over all of the ambiguities that surround (and indeed make) Lana Del Rey. It relies on the fatuous premise that ‘alternative’ writers (who these people are, we are never told) gravitated towards her blindly and naturally, as if she and her marketing have had nothing to do with it. Once you accept that Lana Del Rey did not magically appear one day but has actively touted (and been touted) to specific audiences (a point noted in kind by the admission that there a heap of remixes aimed at ‘alternative’ audiences), then her past becomes relevant. In just the same way that Popjustice found Duffy’s past relevant in this article:
He is reluctant to fully accept the ingenue image. “From the beginning she was very stylised, shot in black and white, sold with the story that she’d barely heard a record before coming to London. The early press releases didn’t mention the fact that she had won [sic] the Welsh X Factor.” But he is not entirely disparaging. “Duffy shows that a manufactured artist can be good, if created by talented people who care about music,” he said.
The ‘Welsh X Factor’ thing in particular was a common fixation that, as far as I can tell, originated with Popjustice. I don’t see how it is any more or less relevant to what Duffy became than Lana Del Rey’s history is. All artists have a story, all artists are creations to some degree, and all people who write about music have every right to examine that and believe it to be relevant.
Now, the particular point being made here is one beloved of Popjustice: that the ‘indie’ world dismisses ‘pop’ music out of hand, particularly if it is manufactured. I think that’s why PJ went to pains to claim Duffy as a ‘manufactured’ artist. It’s also why something like the idea that Lana Del Rey might be terrible live is called a “boring idea of authenticity”. This approach to pop is, I think, cynical and damaging. In short, it treats pop as the disposable trash that these imaginary ‘alternative writers’ would believe it to be. In the effort to create a level playing field between pop and other, presumed ‘superior’ genres, the effort goes into levelling down, not up. So we hear the endless arguments about how everything should be approached as if it is of equal value; about how who writes the songs is irrelevant; about how the ability to perform live is the tedious concern of muso snobs. There is no argument for pop music as something capable of serious, transcendental moments (and I don’t use ‘serious’ here to mean ‘morose’, I mean sincere, affecting and without irony). There is no recognition of the unique brilliance of a pop auteur . There is no appreciation of the fact that the brilliance of ‘manufactured music’ like Motown or Dusty Springfield or most of Kylie’s output has come about from a perfect match between artist and song, a balance and interpretation which is worthy of examination itself and which is cheapened by being lumped in with all ‘manufactured pop’ as if any judgement acknowledging this fact is snobbery.
The urge is clearly to argue for pop as something which must inherently be ephemeral. Obviously this is often true – but ephemeral does not mean worthless. More often than not, however, the pop that truly connects with us, moves us, inspires us, makes us feel impossibly alive, is the pop that treats it as an art form. It has effort put into it and a value placed on it. It is the ‘boring idea of authenticity’ beloved of Motown, Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna, Elton John, The Beatles, Mariah Carey, Abba. Why did Girls Aloud work? Because the people involved took it seriously. They didn’t treat it as pap which would be forgotten in a year.
On some level, I think PJ knows this. While there are endless digs about ‘authenticity’ and jokes at the expense of U2 or Coldplay, when it’s an artist they like, the notions of ‘authenticity’ sneered at above are suddenly taken very seriously. Nicola Roberts can speak at length about writing music, name-drop cool producers and advance the idea that she’s just making music for herself without comment. If Matt Cardle does the same, it’s a recurrent joke. Lady Gaga is clearly seen as being on a different level to most of her contemporaries. Whether you agree with this or not, the arguments for her being so rest heavily on notions of ‘authenticity’ and ‘credibility’ sneered at in this article, however much it may be argued that she just ‘makes great pop’ or whatever.
The (inconsistent) efforts to disassociate from these notions lead to a horrible conservatism which veers towards dismissing anything that isn’t electro-pop. A radical band like The Beatles are lumped in with dreary indie for no apparent reason other than the fact that they were a band of white men. A brilliant British pop star like Adele is labelled as the spearhead of ‘The New Boring’ for writing sincere, moving songs which lack flashy production and dance routines. An act like Little Mix are elevated beyond all reason simply because they fit the bill and, being explicitly manufactured, can be held up as a totem against these imaginary ‘alternative writers’.
I did spend some time on Google in an effort to identify the hordes of hipster writers who hate Lana Del Rey for being ‘inauthentic’. I found plenty of criticism for her dire performance on SNL – but that has sod all to do with her origins. I did find an article in that most archetypal of alternative voices, Pitchfork. I’ll end with a link to it because I think it’s a brilliant piece of writing. It’s fair to say that it’s ambivalent towards Lana Del Rey but it teases out that ambivalence with great insight and certainly doesn’t dismiss her out of hand for her past. Its strength and why it works? It treats its subject as something worthy of serious thought and develops an argument placing it in wider musical contexts. It treats pop with the respect it deserves.